Mediterranean countries share similarities in lifestyle as well as specific regional features like hot dry summers, humid, cool winters and hilly landscapes which provides a goldmine for economic development due to agricultural beneficial conditions, highly touristic attractions, and a rich marine and terrestrial biodiversity. At the same time, due to these similarities, common challenges and environmental risks are in place due to anthropogenic activities on environmental, economic and by extend social pillars. The isolation and identification of these common concerns is of outmost importance for Mediterranean countries to be in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations (UN) and European legislation, as the economic activities of the Mediterranean have a grave impact on the overall economic growth (SDG 8) of the European Union. Agriculture, urbanization, coastal and marine erosion as well as increasing touristic pressures require immediate attention from governments, in order to preserve the privileged position in which Mediterranean countries are in.

Mediterranean main environmental issues and concerns

The Mediterranean region has one of the highest ecological deficits on a global scale. The region’s Ecological Footprint is 3.2 global hectares (gha) per capita (global average 2.8 gha/capita). This is mostly attributed to the effects of overpopulation and economic crisis, raw material and resources consumption and also the reduction of CO2 emissions (United Nations Environment Programme 2020). The Mediterranean basin constituted of around 512 million inhabitants in 2018, 6.7% of the global population, 70% of which living in urban areas and produce 208–760 kg of urban solid waste each year (United Nations Environment Programme 2020; Chatziparaskeva et al. 2022). As a migration hotspot for refugees, these numbers are projected to increase further especially in Turkey (4.3%) and Malta (1.7%). Immigration flows range from 9400 new migrants per year (Malta) to 332,600 (France). Proper access to water, sanitation, and food (SDG2 & SDG 6) as well as adequate waste management (SDG 11) are of primary concern in operating refugee camps.

Αs the Mediterranean holds 1% of the world’s waters, it is responsible for 7% of global marine microplastic (MP) and plastic accumulation (730 ton of plastic waste/ day) while household waste management constitutes a major environmental challenge for local authorities along with air pollution. Most Mediterranean citizens perceive that air quality has deteriorated over the last decade while they support effective legislation enforcement (United Nations Environment Programme 2020; Chatziparaskeva et al. 2022; Elhamdouni et al. 2022). Anthropogenic activities like coastal landfills, dumping sites, ports, fishing activities (resulting in discarded fishing gear), sewage discharge, recreational activities (i.e. recreational boating etc.), shipping and other constitute the major factors for the pollution on marine environments (Chatziparaskeva et al. 2022; Dapueto et al. 2022). Xenobiotic organic concentration in landfill leachate includes, among other, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), phthalic acid esters (PAEs), bisphenols (BPs), 4-nonylphenol (4-NP) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). According to Moustafa et al. (2022), when estimating the pollutant’s flux to the Abou Ali River in Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea, the detected values were 0.23 kg PAHs, 0.01 kg PCBs, 116.85 kg PAEs, 15.93 kg BPs, and 7.58 kg 4-NP (Moustafa et al. 2022).

Similarly, due to leading shipping activities, the Nile River, also nicknamed the “Plastic Nile”, has been identified as a ‘hot spot’ of plastic pollution in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Combined with the lack of metrics and field measurements, the effects of the Nile River on MP and plastic accumulation has not been sufficiently explored. Between two different branches of the Nile (Rosetta and Damietta), MPs in surface waters in 2021 ranged from 751 to 1718 MPs/m3 and 167 to 1630 MPs/kg dry sediment. Thermal analysis categorized the plastic waste as mostly polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP), Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyethylene vinyl acetate (PEVA) and polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) (Khan et al. 2020).

Simultaneously, the increasing concentration of such pollutants and effects of other human activities are prone to a trajectory seasonality increase in the summertime. This is due to the highly touristic profile of the area, where the accumulation of plastic and MP in beaches and marine environments project a 40% increase during the summer (200 million tourists/year), while 80% of touristic attractions are located near coastal areas thus giving better access to the escape of plastic waste into the Mediterranean Sea. A seasonality correlation of French (Genova) and Italian (Olbia) harbors revealed a significantly higher generation of floating plastic in the summer (127,046 floating plastic/km2) than in the winter (20,727 floating plastic/km2). According to Chatziparaskeva et al. (2022), 150,000–500,000 tons and 70,000–130,000 tons of macro and micro plastics end up in the Mediterranean Sea each year due to touristic activities. Repercussions are already visible on an economy spectrum as marine plastic pollution costs almost 2.5 trillion USD emerging from the cost of cleanup (coastlines, rivers, ports etc.) but also the degradation of the touristic destination, aquaculture, fishing practices and the cost of GHG emissions (Chatziparaskeva et al. 2022).

Furthermore, the functionality and sustainability of marine environments depends on a large extend, on thermal and hydrological factors. In the Mediterranean area, such regions are sensitive to anthropogenic activities and climate changes. According to Mariam et al. (2022), the water warming in Moroccan river ecosystems has been altered dramatically through the past four decades which is deeply linked to water withdrawals due to urban and agricultural development (Mariam et al. 2022).

Due to its unique climate conditions, agriculture is a major economic source for Mediterranean countries. During the last two decades, agriculture industry has lost ground in the Mediterranean. Countries are unable to produce sufficient food products for their own consumption and are therefore bound to international trade and import (United Nations Environment Programme 2020). This is also linked to low land productivity, water efficiency and food waste in some parts of the area (Zafeirakou et al. 2022). The growing demands of food products to ensure food security are somewhat focused on cereals as Mediterranean countries account for one third of the global import of cereals (wheat) for merely 7% of the global population. Still, France and Spain exhibit an agricultural balance due to smallholder family farming and small-scale crop production (United Nations Environment Programme 2020).

Agricultural intensification combined with changing climate conditions due to decreased precipitation often has negative effects on the environment through the intensified use of irrigation and nitrogen fertilization leading to increase of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) emissions, biodiversity loss, soil degradation, water scarcity and nitrate contamination (Luis Moreno et al. 2022; Vanino et al. 2022). Average quantities of fertilizers/ pesticides used in the Mediterranean are above the global average with fertilizers and pesticides average consumption of 174 kg/ ha (global average: 141 kg/ha in 2016) and 6.7 kg/ha (global average: 2.12 kg/ha in 2015) (United Nations Environment Programme 2020). Serious contamination issues involving groundwater resources used for irrigation, heavy metals and trace elements (i.e. nitrates, phosphates, potassium, bromine, fluorine) concentration difficult to remediate have been identified. According to Besser et al. (2022), the concentration of such trace elements in Tunisia exceeds recommended values for irrigation water, reaching limits above 300 mg/L. Such concentrations have several impacts on soil degradation and human health as deep aquifers are used for agricultural and drinking purposes in Tunisia (Besser et al. 2022).

GHGs emissions from agricultural activities in the Mediterranean region are vast. According to Söyler et al. (2022) grapefruit production in Turkey amounts to an energy input of 60,944 MJ/ha with electricity consumption of 42% of the total GHG emissions which amount to 8140 kg of CO2 eq./ha (Söyler et al. 2022). Similarly, the production of buffalo milk in southern Italy constitutes a significant portion of the country’s economy. Through a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) approach, the GHGs emissions ranged from 1.5 to 2.5 kg of CO2 eq/kg of Energy Corrected buffalo Milk (ECM), slightly higher than the ranges for cow milk. Chirone et al. (2022) indicated that the largest source of climate change impacts from buffalo milk production occurs when entering the fermentation process (Chirone et al. 2022).

Pergola et al. (2022), analysed the environmental sustainability of two orchards namely peach and kiwifruit in Italy. Fuel combustion during crop production is the primary source of CO2 emissions while nitrous oxide is being released from crop residue decomposition and nitrogen fertilizers use (Pergola et al. 2022). Litskas et al. (2022), investigated the potential of viticulture for the mitigation of GHGs emissions in the Mediterranean, as well as Carbon storage in biomass potential. GHG emissions in vineyards examined by LCA indicated that farm input reduction could result to Carbon storages up to 837 kg CO2 eq/ha/year (Litskas et al. 2022). According to Aksay and Tabak (2022), biogas potential from agricultural activities in Turkey amounts to 17 billion m3/year while at the same time, animal manure needs to undergo proper treatment due to GHGs emissions, soil infertility and water pollution. Turkey’s total collectible manure amounted to 176 million tons/year and agricultural waste to 17 million tons/year. Consequently, the electricity generation potential from biogas is 39 GWh/year while the reduction of carbon emissions will be approximately 174 million tons of CO2/year (Aksay and Tabak 2022).

Important aspect of agricultural activities in the Mediterranean is olive oil production. As it constitutes one of the most recognizable high value products on a global scale, most of its production occurs in the Mediterranean area (67% of total production of global olive oil production, amounting to 19 million tons of olives and 4 million hectares). Each of the stages of its production (farming, extraction, packing, waste treatment) presents critical points for environmental impact therefore mitigation of environmental impact of the sectors through strategies is essential (Rapa and Ciano 2022).

Energy supply constitutes a main factor in the development of society towards sustainability. Mediterranean countries rely on a large degree on external energy imports (7% of global primary energy demands) despite improvement in energy production from renewable energy sources (RES). Still, transport is the highest energy consuming sector, with very strong dependency to fossil fuels and high emissions of GHGs. 70% of transport energy is used in road transport in Mediterranean countries arising from private vehicles (United Nations Environment Programme 2020). According to Bastida-Molina et al. (2022), the North part of the Mediterranean area has an adequate level of energy consumption but still with excess CO2 emissions and high external dependency of energy supply while Middle East and North Africa has deficit in energy supply but without issues of CO2 emissions or external energy use. Until 2040, there has been a requirement for a 100% conversion to renewable energy for the countries of the North area while eastern regions will have to increase their contribution to RES gradually. RES contribution will be limited to 70% while CO2 emissions will decay to 1.7 tons of CO2/capita/year with zero external dependencies in energy (Bastida-Molina et al. 2022).

A pathway towards sustainability

To clear up the path towards sustainability within the particularities of the Mediterranean region, actions to drive sustainable development governance need to be grounded in a holistic understanding of challenges, barriers, and opportunities of sustainable development. Simply put, there needs to be a clearer understanding of what the stakes are, which actors are involved and how they should or do interact (Homobono et al. 2022). Since 1970, an agreement was made between Mediterranean countries to put all information enabling political leaders to develop strategies on sustainable development at their disposal. Regarding this, the Secretariat of the Barcelona Convention has produced three major reports (2016–2021) on behalf of them assessing the initiatives taken from Mediterranean governments. Amongst them, the State of the Environment and Development in the Mediterranean (SOED) 2020 report considered a large range of sustainability issues (i.e. marine environments and SDG14: Life under water) and placed specific indicators to pressure the identification of sources and impacts of marine pollution. Still, cooperation frameworks have not achieved a shared vision. Political agendas in the Mediterranean are limited to thematic ministerial conferences and meetings as well as security related issues.

To ensure harmonisation and effective implementation of climate change mitigation practices, local and competent authorities should consider synergy in action and enforcement of common objectives to prevent further adverse effects on the Mediterranean environment (Fig. 1). Networking and co-reconstruction of existing facilities will aid at the development of permanent collaborations and frameworks (United Nations Environment Programme 2020). Urgent changes in production and consumption (SDG 12) are necessary to achieve the 2030 objectives of the United Nations towards inclusive sustainability while the transition towards green and blue economy is a major challenge of the regions which requires funding for reorienting activities towards sustainable development. To communicate the importance of sustainability activities, the profile of environmental institutions needs to be raised to increase institutional capacity. To ensure the cooperation of the public, information and data collected should be prone to transparency and public access but also, education on sustainable development and emphasis on the Mediterranean area should become a priority (Zorpas et al. 2021). Considering the technological advancements of industry 4.0, full momentum should be given to new or existing technological opportunities and digitalization to ensure harmony of action between different areas of the Mediterranean. Monitoring and assessing through technological advancement will be of outmost importance, especially with the enforcement of assessment tools like environmental impact assessments (EIA), LCA, Material Flow Analysis (MFA) strategic environmental assessment, use of Key Performance Indicators by also including economic and social aspects (United Nations Environment Programme 2020; Keken et al. 2022; Loizia et al., 2021).

Fig. 1
figure 1

Mediterranean main environmental issues and propositions for tackling sustainability barriers

Following up, and translating this regional cooperation in local action, appropriate mechanisms should be in place to include jurisdictional cooperation in detecting intentional pollution from marine transport through the Mediterranean basin while also adopting national provisions and strengthened legislations (United Nations Environment Programme 2020). Local governments should recognize their individual peculiarities in terms of climate change and sustainability to pinpoint opportunities towards Circular Economy schemes that will be personalized to the country’s needs and specifications. This diversity in the policy development mix would result in new plausible scenarios in investments while also associating regulations with public awareness and volunteerism (Cotler et al. 2022).


There is an urgent need for sustainability balance between environmental, social and economic performance of the Mediterranean region. Existing in a beneficial area prone to economic prosperity opportunities, the lack of clear metrics and monitoring of environmental issues is visible. From marine to terrestrial environments along with urban settings, the main concerns are somewhat interconnected, as all of them lack proper and substantive adoption of European legislation and synergic governance of the region. Main difficulty in tackling the existing anthropogenic activities causing the environmental crisis in the Mediterranean is the economic dependency from them. Touristic activities as well as agricultural products (i.e. olive oil) are the main contributors to the economy of the area. Thus, the transition towards sustainability by disturbing the balance built on an economic point of view, acts a s a barrier and a huge risk for governments to tackle. Still, as environmental implications already cause the degradation of those sectors (i.e. loss of value for touristic destinations due to waste accumulation, soil degradation for agricultural activities etc.), the economic viability of the main economy profits in Mediterranean areas is already disturbed. Communication and transparency of competent authorities amongst each other as well as towards citizens is the only way to achieve a legitimate change and smooth transition towards sustainable cities and communities within the Mediterranean. Bridging the understanding of citizens for the decisions made on behalf of them on a national level, will be used as a steppingstone in perusing environmental awareness and boost prevention practices.